The film adaptation of the seminal comic Watchmen finally arrives on the big screen next weekend after spending over 20 years in development hell. The studio behind the movie, Warner Bros, is intent on making it one of the tentpole releases of the summer and has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at the production and marketing of the film, complete with a viral advertising campaign that stretches back almost six months in an attempt to get people into the cinema. But one man who has already promised he won't be buying a ticket is Watchmen author Alan Moore.
On its publication in 1986/7, Watchmen alerted the world to the literary possibilities of the comic book and turned Moore into an icon. Respect for it has grown further since, to the point that when Time magazine picked its top 100 novels of all time at the turn of the millennium, Watchmen was the sole comic to make the list. But Moore's name appears nowhere in the credits for the film adaptation and he won't make any money off the project; a situation he is more than happy with.
And while that may sound like an unconventional stance, it's almost par for the course as Moore – a practising magician and occultist who took to worshipping a sock-puppet snake called Glycon as it was "more interesting" than having a midlife crisis – has never had much time for convention.
Born in England in 1953, Moore rarely strays far from his native Northampton, happily admitting that he considers the far side of the livingroom to be a strange country with odd customs, although that hasn't stopped his influence from being felt worldwide. He almost single-handedly raised the literary standing of mainstream comics and was crucial to shifting the centre of power within the industry from artists to writers, but the high esteem in which he is held is despite (or perhaps because of) his persistent need to fight the powers that be and spectacularly burn bridges.
His image as a misanthropic miserabilist might seem well earned but Moore was happy to poke fun at it when he appeared as himself in an episode of The Simpsons. When approaching him looking for an autograph, Bart exclaims, "You wrote my favourite issues of Radioactive Man." "Oh really," says Moore, "so you like that I made your favourite superhero into a heroin-addicted jazz critic who is not radioactive?" Bart replies, "I don't read the words, I just like when he punches people," which sets Moore off on a rant about the evils of corporations and how they suck the life out of all creative efforts.
His early work in England made him a target for American publishers and he enjoyed massive critical and commercial success with DC Comics for the likes of Swamp Thing, Hellblazer and the Batman one-off story The Killing Joke, which heavily influenced Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning take on the Joker in last year's movie The Dark Knight.
Then came Watchmen, which became so influential and imitated, it almost turned the gritty, deconstructivist, post-modern superhero comic into a separate genre, a side-effect that has always bemused Moore. "I tend to think that I've seen a lot of things over the past number of years that have been a bizarre echo of somebody else's bad mood. It's not even their bad mood, it's mine, but they're still working out the ramifications of me being a bit grumpy back then."
Despite the acclaim, though, Moore's relationship with DC Comics was gradually deteriorating over issues like creators' rights and merchandising. Breaking point was reached in 1989 when he objected to a contract clause that stated the rights of his books would revert to him when the titles went out of print, a clause that was meaningless as DC never intended to stop reprinting the books. Moore's reaction was decisive. "I said, 'Fair enough, you have managed to successfully swindle me, and so I will never work for you again.'" In a radical move, he tried to get his name legally removed from some of his most famous works, but failed in the attempt.
At the time, the first efforts to turn Watchmen into a film were underway, but when director Terry Gilliam went to Moore for tips on how to adapt the novel, his advice was simple: don't. "What I've tried to do with my work, from Watchmen onward, is to do things that can only be done in comics. There are things that can't be achieved either by literature or by movies or by paintings. Just like any art form, it's got things that it alone can do. I think that this is probably what Terry Gilliam ultimately came to agree with me on. I think that as he tried to prepare a script for it, he realized just how much of the texture and content and nuance of the original was going to have to be chopped out. It would simply lose too much translating it from one medium to another."
Moore's initial attitude towards Hollywood was ambivalent. He was happy to cash the cheques and commented, "Whenever there's been films proposed of any of my books, my answer has been pretty much the same. If someone's going to butcher my baby, I'd just rather it wasn't me. Comics, to me, is a much more promising field. There's still a lot of ground to be broken in comics, whereas movies... I don't know. They're a wonderful art form, but they're not my favourite art form. They might not even be in the top five of my favourite art forms."
While he stomached his labyrinthine dissection of the Jack the Ripper murders, From Hell, being distilled down into a silly Johnny Depp-starring whodunnit, his subsequent experiences moved him to sever all ties with Hollywood. Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, about a team of Victorian superheroes pulled from the pages of classic novels, was made into a costly flop by 20th Century Fox in 2003.
That the film was dreadful wasn't the part that infuriated Moore, though. The studio was sued by a screenwriter claiming that elements of the film plagiarised his work and that the "original" comics had been created as a smokescreen to hide the theft.
Moore was deeply annoyed by the accusations and even more so by the 10 hours of testimony he was compelled to give in the case, via video link. "If I had raped and murdered a school bus full of retarded children after selling them heroin," he said afterward, "I doubt that I would have been cross-examined for 10 hours." Moore was even more aggrieved when the matter was settled out of court, which he believed was a tacit admission of guilt.
Since then he has refused to allow any more movies be made of works he controls. In instances where he doesn't control the rights, as with Watchmen, he has refused any credits and signed off all his share of royalties to the artists who originally worked on the comics. While many see this stand as madness, Moore is unrepentant.
"In my world, the actors and the director are all made of paper, and they do exactly what I say. I feel much more in control of the finished work. I feel like the statement that I'm making – even though it's in a medium by no means as glamorous or as widely recognised as film – is at least the statement that I wanted to make. That's a lot more important to me than the allure of working for Hollywood."
But Watchmen has still finally completed its long and tortured journey to film form. After Gilliam eventually gave up the ghost, other cinematic luminaries such as Darren Aronofsky (Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler) and Paul Greengrass (United 93, Bourne 2&3) have tried and failed to get it to the big screen, before Zack Snyder finally succeeded on the back of cachet earned from directing 300.
Ironically, though, Snyder's adaptation is so faithful – basically using the comic as a series of storyboards – that he's succeeded in proving Moore's point of view: the story works best in its original medium. While acolytes of the comic will doubtless flock to see the movie, its length and complexity may scare off non-believers.
So who will watch the Watchmen? Tough to say, but one man who definitely won't is Alan Moore.
Watchmen opens nationwide on Friday